Online Reputations Need Careful Cultivation

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Tony Wilson has a message for young job seekers: beware of your online footprint. Your prospective employers are using the internet to find out more about you.

Whether you’re a student looking for summer work, a new university grad searching for a full-time job, or a parent concerned about your child’s future, Tony’s talk “Social Media: How to Protect Yourself from Yourself” drove home the fact that good reputations are built over time, but can quickly be defaced with a single impulsive social media post. Presenting a series of case studies drawn from real life, Tony effectively demonstrated how social media can get in the way of future success.

“I hear stories about the things 15- to 18-year-olds post on Facebook through my own kids and their circle,” says Tony. “But I see the 22- to 25-year-olds because they’re at an age where they want me to hire them in my law firm. Many of these people don’t seem to understand how the comments and photos they post to Facebook can be publicly accessible, profoundly inappropriate and career-limiting.”

One of the case studies Tony discussed was that of Nathan Kotylak, the 17-year-old Maple Ridge student and water polo athlete who went from a promising future with a scholarship and a spot on Canada’s national team to being tagged in news headlines as “weepy teen water polo player apologiz[ing] for role in Vancouver riot.” The backlash Kotylak experienced through social media was so intense that he and his family had to flee their home, fearing for their safety. Tony also talked about Ram Lam, the NDP candidate for Vancouver-False Creek in BC’s 2009 election who was forced to withdraw from the race because of inappropriate photos posted to what he assumed was his private and personal Facebook page.

“It’s disingenuous to think one’s parents or the people close to them won’t see inappropriate photos and comments if a teen has 750 friends on Facebook,” says Tony. “The reality is that, despite recent amendments to Facebook’s privacy controls, it’s still relatively easy to see and copy what a user has posted to Facebook.”

There are tools that students and their parents can use to keep tabs on their online reputation (Tony recommends setting up Google Alerts) and if the worst happens, there are now specialists in online reputation management who can help. They will post a flurry of positive things about you in order to bury the negative content (further proof of the Internet’s interminably long memory).

However, the best defense, in Tony’s opinion, is not to post inappropriate content at all. Before we click “share”, Tony says, we should ask ourselves whether the material is consistent with how we want people to see us – both personally and professionally. It also helps, he says, to have a “designated driver” – an adult trusted by both the teen and their parents – who can keep an eye out and give advice to the teen if postings cross over into career-limiting territory. Most of all, Tony says, students shouldn’t post pictures or comments they wouldn’t want their grandmother or their future employer to see, because one day, they will.

Resources for parents and youth about social media and privacy:

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